Since 2003, the year his parents died, John O’Rourke has traveled to Forest Hills Cemetery in Huntingdon Valley on a weekly basis to place fresh flowers and an American flag on their graves.
He promised his mother, Angela Rosa O’Rourke, that he would visit her after she passed, and his father, also named John O’Rourke, earned a Purple Heart for his service during World War II.
O’Rourke sees it as his duty to care for the graves, and, so, he and his sister, Theresa Cardamone, were outraged last month when they discovered flags and flowers missing from their parents’ graves right before Flag Day (June 14) and Father’s Day (June 16).
According to the family, O’Rourke went Thursday, June 13, to place an American flag and Father’s Day flowers on the graves. He returned Saturday, June 15, and everything was gone, presumably removed by cemetery maintenance staff.
“You just don’t remove a flag on Flag Day or right before Flag Day,” Cardamone said. “Why would you do that?”
“I’m offended by this, I really am. Being an American, having a flag removed on Flag Day from my parents’ grave, yes, I’m offended,” she added.
The O’Rourke family told the Northeast Times that they have had ongoing issues with flags being removed at Forest Hills/Shalom Memorial Park, which is located at Byberry and Pine Roads, just blocks beyond city limits.
“If had the money or whatever, I’d get them dug up and put them in the urns and have them inside in my living room,” said O’Rourke, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Port Richmond.
Samuel Domsky, the cemetery’s manager, said Forest Hills did not intend to offend the O’Rourkes. Decorations, including flags, pose a maintenance challenge, and the cemetery’s rules and regulations allow for staff to remove anything that gets in the way of mowers and other equipment, Domsky said.
“It’s a balancing act, and we do our best to take care of the 60,000 burials that are here for our families,” he said. “We certainly want to be respectful of all our families, all our veterans and everything we have here, but, also, we want to make sure the park continually looks clean and neat and cut.”
The issue of cemetery decorations — and how long they’re allowed to stay up — is a complicated subject, one that can leave families of the deceased upset and angry.
Just last week, a Facebook post showing flags, veterans’ markers and other displays piled up at Our Lady of Grace Cemetery in Langhorne went viral. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which operates the cemetery, said it recently hired a new maintenance company, which removed deteriorated flags and markers and enforced existing display policies, according to multiple media reports.
John and Angela Rosa O’Rourke are buried in a section at Forest Hills with flat bronze headstones. Domsky said those areas are specifically designed for maintenance purposes, so crews can drive mowers directly over the graves.
“If something is going to cause an issue with regards to the lawnmowers or the weed trimmers or could do damage to the bronze, we’re going to remove it,” Domsky said.
Domsky’s explanation doesn’t sit well with Cardamone. She questioned the cemetery’s methods.
“I know how to mow a lawn,” said Cardamone, a former Somerton resident who now lives in Schuylkill County. “You don’t run into something just because you don’t feel like going around it or weed whacking around it.”
“You don’t just plow over everything and bulldoze everything,” she added. “To me, that’s destroying property.”
Cardamone said she would like to see maintenance workers remove the flags to cut the grass and replace them when they’re done.
“Could you imagine trying to do that with thousands of graves?” Domsky said in response.
Policies about decorations and their removal vary by cemetery. The Archdiocese only allows temporary displays, like flowers, and even those are removed regularly, according to its website.
The American Legion advises its posts that small flags placed next to veterans’ graves on Memorial Day should be removed “as soon as possible” after the holiday.
Still, for Cardamone, the timing of what happened at Forest Hills bothers her, and she wasn’t thrilled with the cemetery’s response.
“There’s just no concern, no big deal, but it is to us,” she said. “We respect the United States of America and our flag. I just don’t understand this.” ••